An Art Hike Through UCSD’s Stuart Collection

Explore this kid-friendly La Jolla art collection sprinkled throughout the University of California, San Diego campus, featuring a 180-ton teddy bear and a Stonehenge-like installation.


Looking for things to do in La Jolla, Calif., that are educational and cultural, and good for adults and kids alike? The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has a secret attraction that even most locals don’t know about: Arrayed on several miles of pathways that meander through the 1,200-acre campus is an impressive outdoor sculpture collection.

Visitors can crisscross the expansive university to view the 17 installations that make up the Stuart Collection, which offers large-scale creations by some of the most important artists in the world. The whimsical pieces are ideal for introducing children to contemporary art, and the hike between sculptures allows kids to burn off excess energy in ways that might not be welcome in a traditional museum setting.

The Tour

Before beginning your tour, stop at the information kiosk at the campus’ south entrance on Gilman Drive, where you can pick up a brochure and map (or download a map) before your visit. The full circuit takes approximately 2.5 hours to walk.

Although it doesn’t really matter which piece you see first, I like to begin at Terry Allen’s installation, Trees, a collection of three realistic, lead-encased eucalyptus trees that stand watch over the distinctive Geisel Library (worth a visit itself; look inside for original drawings and book proofs by Dr. Seuss). Two trees are equipped with hidden speakers from which you can hear poetry, music and Navajo chants; a third tree is mute (paying silent homage to the grove of eucalyptus that has been significantly downsized to make way for the past several decades of campus growth). Look carefully for these pieces, because they are nearly indistinguishable from surrounding live trees.

Harder to miss is Tim Hawkinson’s Bear, a 180-ton, nearly 24-foot-tall granite teddy bear that sits in the middle of the courtyard of the Engineering School—sited appropriately enough, because the playful sculpture looks to be defying gravity, ready to tumble over despite being firmly anchored. This is a particularly thought-provoking piece for kids, because from a distance it looks soft and cuddly; approaching the sculpture dispels these misconceptions: The scale is massive, and the boulders that make up the work are anything but warm and fuzzy.

Another large-scale piece that will ignite children’s imaginations is Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, which are blue, oversized, fencelike structures tucked in the middle of another eucalyptus grove and visible from a pathway students use as a cut-through. This piece was one of the first of the Stuart Collection to be installed on campus, back when I was an undergraduate at UCSD. At the time, most of us called it the “Giant’s Volleyball Net.”

When visiting the campus with my daughter and one of her friends a few years back, we stumbled on a more recent addition to the collection: Elizabeth Murray’s Red Shoe, an oversized high heeled pump seemingly discarded among the trees near the Theater Department—and the surprise of it made us laugh out loud. Children like to climb onto this brightly colored piece—and no one will prevent them from doing so. It was designed to be touched as well as seen.

Climbing on artwork seems to be a universal pull for children, and for this reason they generally love Richard Fleischner’s La Jolla Project—known affectionately by UCSD students as “Stonehenge.” This collection of smooth granite blocks is arranged to suggest the English megalithic monuments. The expansive and impressive installation has been the backdrop of dozens of graduation ceremonies over the years; it’s tucked into a quiet and parklike section of the old campus (near Revelle Plaza), which makes it a nice spot to read or have a picnic.

The crowning glory of the collection—and the unofficial mascot of the campus—is Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God, a wildly colorful 14-foot-tall phoenix topped with a golden headpiece and perched atop a 15-foot concrete arch. (This piece was installed when I was a student as well, and for months before final delivery the concrete arch stood empty, leaving many of us to wonder if this arch was the artwork.) Visit at various times of the year and you might find the remnants of a student prank—like a nest of hay with oversized golden eggs beneath the radiant bird or a graduation cap tossed jauntily over its head. (Stop by the UCSD bookstore and you can purchase a souvenir T-shirt or coffee cup with the image of the iconic Sun God.)

Tips for Visiting

UCSD has more than 27,000 students and almost as many employees, so the campus can be packed. To avoid crowds on the pathways, visit on weekends, school holidays or before 10 a.m. (before most of the campus residents are up and about). Metered parking is hard to come by on weekdays. Instead, buy day parking passes at information kiosks and parking structures throughout the campus during the week; on weekends parking is free—and more readily available. (UCSD Stuart Collection, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla; tel. 858-534-2117.

Destinations: La Jolla

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums

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